One of my favorite scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a two or three second shock during which a series of terrifying events happen. At this point in the film, Danny has been replaced by Tony, who’s saying “Redrum” in a voice that’s robotic at first and amplifies in intensity and urgency as Jack’s presence gets closer. As Danny—or “Tony,” his psychic alter-ego—screams “Redrum,” Wendy reads the words backward in the mirror. The camera pans in on the word “murder” written in childish handwriting with blood-red lipstick. Almost as soon as we, the viewers, read “murder” in the mirror, we hear the unnerving sound of an ax chopping through wood and the camera moves to Jack, who wields the huge, sharp, silver device and uses it to slice through the wooden door of the caretaker’s quarters, where Danny and Wendy reside. As if this nexus of sensation weren’t enough to alarm us, the viewers, and pull as even a little more deeply into The Shining’s sinister, unpredictable world, Wendy’s voice intercepts this moment with a simultaneously frenetic and bone-chilling scream—a scream that we’ll hear different variations of for the rest of the movie. In turn, we, as the viewers—at least a little bit—start feeling Wendy’s maddening fear, and our cognition is ultimately forced to accept a mis-en-scene and narrative moment that’s eliminated anything reassuring or comforting for us to latch onto. We are, in a sense, in the void, and we are there with Wendy.
Wendy may seem like an unusual choice to write about for a series entitled “Fiction’s Fearless Females,” for as any cursory fan of The Shining knows, Wendy—played by scream queen Shelly Duvall—is a flawed, often anxious character who lapses into a state of unbridled, near hysterical terror as the horror in The Overlook Hotel intensifies. It occurred to me shortly after electing my character for this series that I may have chosen a character who I happen to love, but who doesn’t quite qualify as “fearless.” Isn’t fearlessness something like maintaining impeccable sangfroid in the face of sometimes unspeakably horrifying, life-or-death situations? Maybe fearlessness is only Princess Leia’s impressive, almost unwavering calmness and confidence, despite every obstacle she faces, in Episodes IV-VI of Star Wars. Maybe fearlessness is only Ripley’s stolid leadership and remarkable competence as large, gooey, sharp-toothed, aggressive otherworldly beings invade a vulnerable ship floating around in outer-space. Maybe—as some of my students suggested when we watched The Shining in my Reading the Monster class—maybe Wendy reifies some stereotypes of the quintessential “hysterical” woman. Maybe she exercises bad judgement when she stays in the hotel with Danny as long as she does. Maybe she exercises bad judgement because she’s stayed with Jack for so long, period. Maybe she’s a door-mat. Maybe she’s a chicken-shit.
Maybe. The aforementioned observations are all compelling ones. Reasonable minds could agree with all of them. Most reasonable minds might agree with some of them. For myself, personally, I’m inclined to think that by the time Wendy has reason to make her way down a mountain in what kind of equals a glorified snowmobile, Jack has annihilated all her escape options. And it’s quite possible that she’s been emotionally abused by Jack throughout their whole marriage—at least, in Kubrick’s rendition of King’s story—and therefore is trapped in a typical cycle of abuse, a cycle that often precludes even the “strongest” women from breaking free as soon as they otherwise could or as soon as we often estimate they should. What’s more, when it comes down to it, Wendy is plenty willing to sacrifice Jack to save herself and Danny. After all, she conks Jack over the head with a bat and locks him in a freezer, with the intent of leaving him there while she escapes from The Overlook with Danny on a trip down a mountain, in the snow-cat, in the middle of fierce Colorado winter. And she befriends a sizeable kitchen knife during her ordeals so that she can stave off her raving husband by any means necessary. So, we may be able to argue against some assertions that would make us question Wendy’s alleged “strength.” But despite all of the possible arguments and counter-arguments about Wendy’s fortitude, at the end of the day, I’m not so sure any of it matters. Wendy is evidently under insuperable distress. In some ways, she’s a little bit of a mess before and during this distress. Therein, I argue, lies not only her charm, but her ticket into this series.
I was having a conversation about courage once a long time ago. One wise friend asserted that courage is that calm feeling of reassurance you have in your heart, the absence of fear in the face of incredible f***ing danger. Shit, I thought to myself, in that case, I don’t know that I’ve ever had courage in my life. Luckily for me, another friend interjected and argued that courage was the decision to move forward, to take action, no matter how afraid you are. Fearlessness, in this analysis—however paradoxically—lies not so much in the absence of fear, per se, but in the ability to push through that fear and act, no matter how much trepidation lies in your heart, no matter how riled up you might appear. It is the refusal to let fear stop you when you’re called to action, and to perform the action anyway. This definition, I’ll admit, I much preferred as I listened to the conversation, and it’s the one I tend to adopt in my life, though not always successfully. It turns out that even being “fearless” in this way—demonstrating fearlessness by acting, no matter how scared you are—is a fairly daunting goal—as anyone who’s lived a few years on this earth can probably understand. But it is this sort of fearlessness that Wendy accomplishes, despite whatever flaws she may have, despite her indisputably evident outward terror—and that, I think, is why I love her.
It would be easy, after all, to give up in Wendy’s situation. She’s in a secluded hotel in the middle of the winter, and I would be inclined to argue that not only does she have a psychic son who’s a partial victim of his own power, not only is she warring against a mad husband who is malicious and mean beyond reason, to the point of murderous nefariousness, but she has—as I view the film—an entire, active pantheon of ghosts, an essentially vengeful, psychic hotel that encapsulates a wide range of unhappy spirits, acting against her. It’s a force that exists beyond human force, a force that wants to kill her, a force that wants to subsume her husband and eliminate that pesky psychic son. The situation is, in some senses, hopeless. But, as the saying goes, “nevertheless, she persisted.” Wendy shrieks and jumps and screams and cries and fights, and she plans and she reasons and she fights some more, and she puts Danny’s life first while simultaneously trying to preserve her own, if, primarily, for his well-being. In fact, I’d argue that in the midst of traumatizing absolute terror, she makes smart decision after smart decision, and as a result, she and her unusually smart son beat the hotel at its own game.
Wendy is a jolting, electric force without being perfect, and I like that about her because in my own life, I find that coveting perfection can be beneficial, but it can also be counterproductive. I often envision a more organized self who moves effortlessly and quickly through her PhD program, who is a dynamic, engaging teacher every single day and at the same time a perfect friend, girlfriend, sister and daughter – someone with strong convictions and a good heart, who keeps a meticulous house and eats leafy greens with every meal. I want to be a grad student who’s always dressed impeccably and stylishly, but whose savings account is always ample as well. I want to be centered and peaceful, to create the perfect interior and exterior—and maybe, if I have time, the perfect social media persona. Sometimes, in fact, my ideal self becomes so exhausting to think about (and so far from the real story) that it’s no wonder I resent perfection. It definitely has its place in film; there are a lot of almost “perfect” film characters that I adore—and I certainly believe in striving to be better in my own life, despite how I might meander, at times—but good God, trying to live up to my own ideal of perfection is exhausting. And I think that’s kind of how perfection works for most of us—the desire to improve is a motivator, for sure, but taken to extremes, visions of perfection can also be barriers to fulfillment.
Jacques Lacan said that human existence is defined by lack. This is how I understand his point: To some extent, our inner selves are always consciously seeking a more perfect version of the ego, a better “self” to replace the self that we perceive doesn’t have enough of one quality or another. When I first heard this concept, it really resonated with me, because I think I’m someone who’s always been far quicker to register what she lacks than what she possesses. But to Lacan, this is a universal element of being human; we all wish we had certain attributes that we don’t, and so we define ourselves by what we aren’t, instead of what we are. This is the appeal of characters like Wendy, characters who don’t embody complete perfection. As someone who tends to wish she were a little more “calm and collected,” a little more pulled together than she is, I get Wendy when she’s screaming and crying and wheezing while she’s trying to stave off her maniacal, murdering husband, even though I could never fully imagine being in an ordeal like hers. And I doubt, most of the times, that I’d be doing her job as competently as she does it toward the conclusion of Kubrick’s film. She is a spasmodic mess at points in the film, but she gets the job done—and she’s a good person, on top of it all.
When we walk away from Kubrick’s narrative, after all, we leave behind a Jack Torrance who’s an opaque shade of candy-colored white-blue, sitting, frozen stiff, in the cold. Wendy and Danny have escaped. We’ve seen them run to the snow cat that Dick Halloran drove when he demonstrated his own act of fearlessness and traveled to The Overlook to try and help the family. The blustery winter is still formidable, and it may well be a symbolic harbinger of the blustering winter that lies ahead for Wendy and Danny—a life that will never feel completely safe or comfortable, a life without Jack, a life that will never be the same since madness and malice have further disrupted their already seemingly tumultuous relationships. After all, any realistic viewer knows when they watch Wendy and Danny run through the snow to the snow cat, that should they make it down the mountain, it’s not the whimsical happily ever after that I perhaps imagined when I first watched the movie at age eleven and sighed with a sort of exultant relief at their surprising escape. Life, which is just sort of inherently hard, will be harder for them, yet. And still, they are alive. And they are still alive, in large part, because of Wendy—a Wendy who emits maddening screams and tears, a Wendy who has her own flaws, a Wendy who can be hysterical to the point of spastic, but a Wendy perseveres and ultimately triumphs.
[Kalie’s Note: I wrote this piece as part of an epic blog team-up aimed at celebrating Fiction’s Fearless Females. The series launched on International Women’s Day and continues through…my belated post. Other awesome bloggers in this super-awesome series include: Kathleen and Nancy of Graphic Novelty2 , Green Onion of The Green Onion Blog, Jeff of The Imperial Talker, Michael of My Comic Relief, Rob of
My Side of the Laundry Room, and Kiri of Star Wars Anonymous. ]
5 thoughts on “Fiction’s Fearless Females – Wendy Torrance”
Wendy Torrence is a really good example of a fictional fearless female. What she went through was a pure, terrifying, grand scale nightmare of both external forces and the personal forces of her family in peril. And she got through it. Everytime I watch that film I still root for her despite knowing she wins.
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Well-stated. I root for her as well! She seems so unassuming at the beginning of the movie, but she turns out to be a total bad-ass.
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Although Wendy would certainly seem an atypical choice for this series- you sold it! I think the quote by Eddie Rickenbacker (WWI Medal of Honor recipient), “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared” is an apt description for what Wendy went through to save her and her son.
I really like that quote–and yes, I agree, it’s a fitting quote for her character!
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This is a delightful find. After seeing Doctor Sleep and re-watching the Shining for the hundredth time I was emboldened to write an essay all about Wendy Torrance – and specifically how wonderful a job Shelley Duvall did portraying her. I thought I was the only one who felt so strongly about Wendy, I’m glad to be proven wrong.
I like how you pointed out the Danny and Wendy’s life is likely never going to feel safe or comfortable, or at least not completely. Trauma like this never vanishes, and considering Kubrick made such a down to earth, grounded film – aside from the supernatural elements of the Hotel – it is likely that the two will have to deal with the realistic consequences of such an experiences – hell, even just the trauma of living with a man like Jack.
I couldn’t agree with you more that yes, Wendy Torrance is every bit as courageous as Ripley. Even the most terrified and scared people can have the most courage.